A solid opening
Roy Thomson Hall
Dai Fujikura: Tocar y Luchar
George Benjamin: A Mind of Winter
Vivian Fung: Violin Concerto No. 2 "Of Snow and Ice" (*)
Henri Dutilleux: Métaboles (*)
Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Jonathan Crow (violin)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, George Benjamin, Peter Oundjian (*) (conductors)
V. Fung (© Brendan Zamojc)
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s 11th annual New Creations Festival, with its focus this year on British composer/conductor George Benjamin, launched with a program of four substantial works.
George Benjamin selected the intriguing opening work, Tocar y Luchar (“Play and Fight”) by Japanese composer Dai Fujikura. It was composed in 2010 for the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra. It starts off with small phrases emanating from various (and eventually all) sections of the large orchestra, representing the composer’s impression of El sistema, the renowned Venezuelan program involving children from all backgrounds in classical ensembles. This part of the work obviously represents the Tocar aspect of the title. But an abrupt - even startling- change occurs (“away with all this pretty noodling” seems to be the message) and the tense, driven Luchar builds to a climax and its own denouement. Benjamin’s understated conducting style contributed to the surprising change in tone.
The composer then conducted his own work, A Mind of Winter, composed when he was 21 and still a student at Cambridge University (in his teens he had been a student of Olivier Messiaen in Paris). It is a 10-minute-long treatment of a laconic poem by Wallace Stevens that evokes the feeling of winter. It begins with a shimmering sound from the orchestra that starts inaudibly; the orchestral writing (with much use of woodwinds) provides an aural nimbus for the soprano. Barbara Hannigan maintains a riveting evenness of pure tone throughout. The only drawback is that the piece is arguably small-scale for a large hall.
In the intermission interview George Benjamin admitted he has had hits and misses in his composing career (and what composer has not?). This song is obviously one of the hits.
The second half of the evening, under the baton of Peter Oundjian, began with the world premiere of Canadian composer Vivian Fung’s Violin Concerto No. 2 “Of Snow and Ice”. Ms Fung grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, a very wintery city. The work arose from nostalgic thoughts about her childhood while in her current home in snowless San Francisco. The commission was specifically for the TSO’s principal violinist, Jonathan Crow, and the writing superbly shows off his immaculate tone and technique. The work skilfully evokes, as the first two sections state, “Birth of a Snowstorm” and “Crackling Ice”, before the “Macabre Pseudo-winter Dance” and then the lingering “Final Return”. The absorbing work is very much of the post-Sibelius, post-Britten era in its sound.
I suppose it is appropriate that, at the end of the coldest February in the city’s history, we should have two pieces so evocative of winter (not to mention that a couple of days earlier we heard - and felt - Christian Gerhaher’s deeply expressive Die Winterreise).
The concluding work turned out to be a real winner, Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles, dating from 1965 and composed for the Cleveland Orchestra, then still in its legendary George Szell era. The first four of the five linked sections focuses on a separate section of the orchestra: “Incantatoire: Largamente” on the woodwinds; “Linéaire: Lento moderato” on the strings; “Obsessionnel: Scherzando” on the brass; and “Torpide: Andantino” on the percussion. The concluding “Flamboyant: Presto” then employs the entire orchestra in further treatment of a musical figure that has been metabolizing throughout the piece. It struck me as a successor to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (1943), and worthy of the comparison. The program mentions its 30-minute length; it seemed a good deal shorter. The orchestra rose dazzlingly to its technical demands.